Pri­mo Levi: The Mat­ter of a Life

Ber­el Lang
  • Review
By – January 16, 2014

Pro­fes­sor Lang has devel­oped an unusu­al plan to explore the life of an unusu­al writer. Mod­el­ing the approach in part on one of Levi’s books, Lang begins with a chap­ter called The End” and con­cludes with one called The Begin­ning” fol­lowed, nat­u­ral­ly, by Pref­ace.” This some­what play­ful strat­e­gy enacts Lang’s con­cern with pos­si­ble confu­sions of chronol­o­gy and causal­i­ty. It allows him, as well, to guide us with prop­er tentative­ness through such issues as whether or not Levi would have become an author with­out the expe­ri­ence of sur­viv­ing the Holocaust. 

The inside chap­ters, the meat of the meal, con­sid­er The War,” Writ­ing,” The Jew­ish Ques­tion,” and Think­ing.” Lang pro­vides the nec­es­sary wartime con­text for under­stand­ing the excep­tion­al sit­u­a­tion of Italy and of Ital­ian Jews before, dur­ing, and after World War II. He also exam­ines the tran­si­tion in Levi’s pro­fes­sion­al iden­ti­ty from chemist (chemi­cal engi­neer and chem­i­cal plant man­ag­er) to writer. In this dis­cus­sion, he under­scores Levi’s insis­tence that the sci­en­tif­ic and artis­tic modes are not adver­sar­i­al. Lang sees Levi as feel­ing his way into a bal­anc­ing act. While the pre­ci­sion and clar­i­ty nec­es­sary in sci­en­tif­ic work find their way effec­tive­ly into Levi’s prose style, per­haps his poet­ry is hand­i­capped by literalism.

For Levi, not just his biog­ra­ph­er, the ques­tion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is prob­lem­at­ic. Cer­tain­ly Pri­mo Levi can be iden­ti­fied as a Jew­ish writer: the issue is whether this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is con­fin­ing or lib­er­at­ing. Levi’s polit­i­cal lean­ings were uni­ver­sal­ist rather than nation­al­ist. This oth­er bal­anc­ing act, between par­tic­u­lar­i­ty and uni­ver­sal­i­ty, Lang also exam­ines with zest and sub­tle­ty. This is espe­cial­ly true in Think­ing,” the chap­ter in which Lang attempts to locate Levi with­in (or just out­side of) the role of moral philosopher. 

In call­ing atten­tion to and assess­ing the vari­ety of gen­res that Levi explored, Levi’s orig­i­nal cast of mind, the many contradic­tions in Levi’s own asser­tions or rec­ol­lec­tions about impor­tant issues, and oth­er intrigu­ing mat­ters, Ber­el Lang has giv­en us a fresh vision of a fas­ci­nat­ing and rather mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure. For­tu­nate­ly, he has not abol­ished the mys­tery, but rather ful­ly respect­ed it. Chronol­o­gy, index, list of Levi’s books, notes.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Jew­ish Lives series

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions